Old Man Austin - Page 2

    “Sir,” she said, “trust me. I’ll have him call you as soon as he’s available.”
    “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m going to have to hang up now. You can give me your number and I’ll have him call you, or not.”

Most people would have left a message, but he wasn’t tying up the line by waiting on hold. It wasn’t like he was making a pass at her or anything.

    “You never told me your name.”
    “Delores. Now what’s your number, sir?”
    “You have any kids, Delores? I bet you’re married at least.”
    “Divorced. No kids. What’s your number?”

He finally relented and gave her his number and heard the dial tone again quickly afterwards.

He imagined Delores returning home to an empty apartment, like his, quiet with absent screams and laughter from the kids she never had with her ex. Her voice was gravelly, mid-fortiesish, with a working-class edge. He pictured her as a brunette, not attractive but not unattractive, maybe glasses, slim. He wished she would have talked to him longer.

He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a tupperware bowl of leftover salad he had made the day before. He plopped himself into one of the vinyl-cushioned chairs at the table, but realized he had forgotten a fork and had to stand up on his weak knees to find one from the silverware drawer next to the sink. This was half his day. Forty-five minutes to put his clothes and dentures on and comb his hair. Just shy of an hour to change, shower, shave, clean the dentures, and smooth on some lotion before going to bed. A half hour to brown the toast, fry up some eggs, and heat the instant coffee. Ninety minutes for a turkey sandwich and the National Geographic. Two hours for spaghetti and an evening with Dan Rather.

The iceberg lettuce and carrots crunching between his dentures were the only sounds in his apartment other than the noise of the refrigerator and his breathing after he swallowed. He didn’t swallow well because of a tightness in his throat the doctors told him was only a symptom of old age that he shouldn’t worry about. It distracted him every time he ate, but it kept him from eating too much, and he had gotten used to it, like the coarseness of his skin and the veins, mottled and serpentine, beneath it. He could hardly taste the food anymore, but he could still hear the sounds. He chewed his food longer than he needed just to listen to them.

He dabbed dish soap on a sponge and rubbed it vigorously against his salad bowl for a minute. He did the same to his fork and the tupperware bowl, and then rinsed everything under the tap. His wife used to wash the dishes in one blowout frenzy while watching the afternoon soaps.

She was the prom queen. The pink silk dress and the graceful lines of her long limbs beneath it during the opening waltz had conjured in him a sentiment he supposed was love, and which really became love years later. The moisture between his fingers and hers caused him to clasp her hand more tightly than he would have otherwise for fear of letting go. He brought her so close their stomachs pressed against each other when he stepped into a pirouette. Their mouths met in a kiss that was so simple and natural none of the nuns from her school, the brothers from his, or the chaperons bothered to intercede against the public display of passion. The heat from her tongue and lips and the firm curve of her lower back seemed stronger in his memories than the pressure of his heart sinking when she breathed her last breath against the brain cancer that had reduced her cherub’s cheeks and doe’s eyes to shadows.

Austin watched pedestrians and automobiles on the avenue zipping past his living room window. He had moved from a bigger third-floor apartment to the garden level only a few months ago, but the new location already felt as if he had been there for years. His move was justified, he had told himself, because the arthritis in his knees made the stairs difficult to climb and the cheaper rent allowed him to expand his cable options. But at the heart of it was also his desire to become a more engaged voyeur.

He smiled at a woman with flowing blond hair and perky breasts, but she didn’t smile back. No one looked up high
enough to see him when he was on the third floor, but on the ground floor people had to look away not to see him. Certainly she had seen him. So did the boy walking his dog and the droopy-eyed Hispanic cabbie who waited with both fists on the steering wheel for someone to let him reenter traffic. There was the siren of an ambulance, and Austin closed his eyes. The wail grew loud, then faded into the distance. It would return for him someday. He looked forward to the paramedics’ urgent questions and the buzz of onlookers, their concern like pins and needles against his eyelids. He had spoken to no one today, not counting Delores.

There was still fourteen minutes before “Oprah.” After her came the half-hour newscasts, and he could cruise from “Friends” and “Frazier” reruns straight into primetime. The afternoon was overcast, and although dusk was still a few hours away, the neon sign of the Vietnamese restaurant across the street glowed as if night had already come. A wet chill breeze heralded the end of shirtsleeve weather, long sunny days, and the summer laziness that softens walkers’ strides and the hum of automobile engines. The leaves were turning color. The World Series would start in a couple weeks.

The phone rang.

Austin winced at the crack of his knees, and he leaned his hand on the couch for support, its woolen fibers rough against the soft spot between the calluses and the heel of his hand. He pushed off hurriedly, shuffling across the worn carpeting and back to the kitchen, panting. Even a month ago he could have crossed the rooms without difficulty. But his bones sensed winter with a ferocity that locked his knees if he moved too fast. He hadn’t known such frustration since the horseshoe pattern began to appear in his hairline nearly half a lifetime ago and with it the awareness that he was never going to leave the job he started at the Post Office when he was 19 and newly married.

    “I don’t have your file on hand,” spoke a deep voice that had identified itself as Dr. Meyers when Austin answered.  
    “When was the last time I saw you?”
    “Maybe 40 years ago.”
    “You used to play for St. Michael’s little league, Chuck. Remember the year we almost took city?”

Dr. Meyers paused.
    “Not even my wife calls me Chuck anymore.”
    “I don’t suppose a doctor would have a reason to be called Chuck.”
    “You’re right.”
    “You did well.”
    “Thanks, I guess.”
    “I might’ve thought you’d become a doctor.”

Austin shook his head at the wall. He wished he were in an office or a living room with him so he could know whether his bluff would be called. He didn’t remember Chuck very well, and didn’t trust the few memories he had of him.

    “You were too afraid to slide because you didn’t want to get your uniform dirty.”
    “That was a long time ago.”
    “Not that long ago.”
    “Why did you call, Mr. Brooks?”

Austin knew he should have expected the question, but the familiarity he tried to inflect in his voice had preoccupied him. He thought of the baseball games and how his dark hair had been thick enough to become messy underneath his cap back in the day when Chuck was on the team. Austin’s deep blue eyes had remained aloof through the horseplay on the bench in the early season and the tears when they lost the city championship game. His jaw had been firm then, and the wrinkles in his forehead didn’t sag. He quit coaching five years later, telling himself he was tired of putting up with the sass, the overbearing parents, the lost evenings.

He had forgotten about his coaching days until one morning in August when he was passing the old ball field while taking the 18 downtown to cash his social security check. The grass infield had been replaced by dirt and the outfield fence was gone, but some little kids were playing a pickup game with the same smiles he remembered on the kids he had coached decades ago.

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